Thursday, January 14, 2021

Hunters of the Void Chapter 4


Division of Labor

A hybrid biocomputer was one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology in all existence. Putting one together required equally sophisticated tech.

An industrial-grade 3D bioprinter capable of ultra-high precision. Bioink. A multi-material 3D printer. Feedstock. Uninterruptible power supply. Most importantly, a cleanroom.

Securing everything was no small feat for the private sector. Doing it without attracting the attention of the authorities and the New Gods was a covert operation worthy of an intelligence agency.

Alex had already sorted out most of the preliminaries. He’d rented an industrial warehouse under an alias, registering it as the business address of a new biotech start-up. As warehouses went, it was on the small side, only about a thousand square feet.

In front of the main door, Alex and his Angels had set up the hardware printing and assembly area. A multi-material 3D printer took pride of place. A large black box as tall as a man’s waist, it superficially resembled a fax-scanner-printer combo from yesteryear. With the right feedstock and designs, it could print anything that fit inside its generously-sized chamber. A nearby table and chair served as the workbench, for assembly of the final product. A laptop on the workbench, plugged into the 3D printer, awaited instructions.

Past the printer, stacks of fuel cells occupied the center of the warehouse. Running on liquid hydrogen, they were less power-dense than traditional diesel generators. However, hydrogen was cheap, silent, and most of all, clean.

Cleanliness was critical. The slightest speck of dust could irreparably damage delicate circuitry. Dust could insulate components, causing heat to build up, making it more difficult for fans to cool the system. Heat caused components to slow down, to wear out, to fail. Metallic dust could cause short circuits.

And for a biological computer, dust could introduce bacteria that could kill its living cells.

Alex had splurged on a mobile cleanroom. Parked at the far end of the warehouse, the trailer-sized unit was divided into two halves, a gowning room and a workroom, complete with sink and HEPA filters. Inside the workroom, he had installed a 3D bioprinter, the largest and most sophisticated on the market, and stocked it with a selection of bioinks. Next to the cleanroom, a giant freezer held a supply of bioinks and growth media.

The workflow was simple. Both the bioprinter and the multi-material printer would run simultaneously. The hybrid biocomputer’s wetware component could be printed in a single run, but there were multiple discrete hardware components. Printing time was estimated at eighteen hours. Once everything was ready, every element would be assembled into a seamless hybrid biocomputer.

And Alex would do the assembling.

“Do you really have to do this in person?” Kayla asked.

“We need to defend the site. You two are combatants. I am not. It is the only rational decision,” Alex said.

His back was turned to the entrance, to the operators, his attention trained entirely on his domain.

“Don’t you have your Angels?” Zen asked.

Zen gestured at the six-strong squad of robots before him. They were all gynoids, wearing the faces of beautiful women, clothed in jumpsuits and military webbing, hiding steel bones and silicon hearts.

“The Angels are limited. They can conduct installation protection. They can monitor the printers. They can assemble the biocomputer, with the right instructions. But they are incapable of testing, or rapidly adapting to novel situations. They need a human in the loop to supervise them.”

“You realize that you’re putting yourself at risk,” Kayla said.

Alex shrugged stoically.

“We defy the will of the New Gods. We are always at risk.”

His words sounded brave, even noble. But Kayla wondered how much of it was simply justification to do something few people will ever do: personally build a state-of-the-art biocomputer derived from stolen Godtech.

“You prepared all this beforehand, didn’t you?” Zen asked.

“Yes. It took six weeks to put together everything you see before you. The moment the warehouse was set up, I contacted you.”

“You were planning to print the biocomputer all along,” Kayla said.

“I was prepared for that eventuality, yes. The realized costs were low, but the potential reward enormous.”

Kayla gaped.

“‘Low’? The cost of one of the printers alone is enough to buy a house!

Alex shrugged again.

“It is low to me. And it was rented, not purchased. Everything you see here except for fuel, furniture and feedstock is rented.”

Even so, it represented an enormous investment of funds and energy, especially since he had to hide these transactions from the New Gods. And then there was the matter of the Angels, each of which was easily double, even triple, the price of a 3D printer.

Now Alex finally turned around. Up close, he was remarkable only for his scrawniness. His softness. Dressed in a body-hugging jumpsuit and gloves like his robots, his head appeared painfully oversized in relation to his torso, and his limbs seemed even thinner than they were.

He was no combatant. His talents lay within his cranium.

Someone else had to do the fighting for him.

“The Angels will barricade the warehouse. I am relying on you to provide external overwatch,” Alex said.

“You can count on us,” Kayla said.

“Good. I hope your presence will not be necessary. However…”

“Best to be prepared,” she said.


North Valley Park sat just outside the Babylon city limits. Part of its metropolitan area but not of the city itself, it fell within the limits of the town that had given it its name. The rolling hills of the park served as a natural border with Babylon, yet like everything it had set its sights on, Babylon claimed it for its own.

While it was the only park in the town of North Valley, it lacked the brand recognition of larger, grander, more carefully curated parks within Babylon. Its sole walking trail wound through its ancient forest and among its gentle slopes, offering much pleasantness but none of the visual spectacle of its more famous brethren. It was a decent choice for hiking, jogging, and other outdoor activities, but there were plenty of larger, harder, more scenic parks and trails and forests within driving range.

On the other hand, it offered a spectacular view of the neighborhood around Alex’s warehouse.

Zen and Kayla spent the morning walking the grounds of the park. They went off the beaten trail, taking plenty of photos of trees and hills and birds and bushes. They climbed the hills, taking in the view of Babylon to the southeast. They laughed and walked and flirted, just two friends out on a day hike, friends who might be trying to be something more.

The world saw only hikers and backpackers. Beneath the facade was a team of battle-ready operators.

Their eyeshields were mil-grade, superficially resembling civilian designs, but rated to stop low-caliber rounds and high-velocity fragments. Under their zipped-up jackets they wore low-profile battle belts and chest harnesses. Phones, wallets, knives, tools and spare magazines populated the many pockets of their cargo pants. Ankle-mounted first-aid kits and backup guns rounded out their gear. They’d chosen earthy colors, the better to break up their silhouette and disappear into the background.

The one incongruity was their massive backpacks. There was little they could do about that. Better for people to think they were over-prepared hikers or day-trippers than to see them for what they truly were.

Their hike ended at a clearing at the southern end of the park. It wasn’t much, just a patch of flat earth, but it was a geological oddity among the rises and depressions in the area.

They set their packs down in the shade of a linden tree. Kayla retrieved a rolled-up groundsheet from her pack and laid it on the ground. Zen took out a thermos filled with hot coffee. Together, they unpacked their meals.

Pocket sandwiches, bacon cheddar for her, tuna for him. Protein bars, oatmeal and egg whites for her, smoked beef for him. Handfuls of dried fruits and nuts. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

Kayla barely registered the taste. She was operational again. Food was fuel, no more. She saw only proteins, fats, carbs, prebiotic fiber, caffeine. She consumed it all with equal indifference. With neither cameras nor witnesses around, she could finally drop the mask, focus completely on psyching up for the job.

She took her time with her meal. Zen wolfed his food down, then retrieved a pair of palm-sized boxes from his pack. Trail cameras painted to resemble old tree bark.

“Where do you want these?” he asked.

She chewed on a mouthful of bacon and cheddar, contemplating the question, studying the world around her.

“We’ll set one camera here, to cover the approach from the walking trail,” she said.

“And the other?”

“A quick reaction force is likely to come from the direction of Babylon. That means… there.”

She pointed at a lonely tree to her one o’clock.

“See the gap in the woodline? It leads to an animal trail. It’s not marked on the map, but it feeds into Babylon. Orient the camera towards the opening.”

“Roger that.”

Zen fastened the camera around the trunk of the tree with a pair of thick elastic bands. He fiddled with it, positioning its wide-angle lenses just right. Then he trudged off to the other tree, the second camera in hand.

Kayla downed a slug of hot coffee, her thoughts turning to security. Two shooters weren’t enough for this mission. She’d have wanted three, even four. 

The Angels were alright, but they had the functional intellect of a child. Without explicit programming and orders, they would not, could not, act. They were fine for static security, but not in a dynamic tactical situation. Tech was no replacement for thinking brains.

Zen returned from his work. She dusted off the crumbs from her hands and mouth, then looked around. They were alone.

“Guns up?” she asked.

“Guns up,” he affirmed.

Zen dug his weapon out of his pack. An M83 carbine, configured as an ultracompact weapon. It was the size of a submachine gun, a machine pistol, but it packed the stopping power of a battle rifle out to two hundred meters. He had stored the upper and lower receivers separately in a hidden compartment at the rear of his pack. He laid both receivers flat on the groundsheet, then pushed in the takedown pins and mated them together. He switched on the red dot sight, sighted down it, tested the flashlight mounted on the forearm, then pulled out his last accessory, a quick-detach suppressor. With the ease of long practice, he screwed on the suppressor and locked it in place.

Kayla unzipped her pack and laid it flat on the ground. The rear compartment held a curious collection of objects, all of them secured to a low-profile hook-and-loop panel. One by one, she placed them on the groundsheet. There were a half-dozen of them, black and blocky, puzzle pieces of metal and polymer, engineered for lethal purpose, waiting to be made whole.

Her hands flowed through smooth, easy motions, putting the parts back together. The barrel housing group joined the fire control group. The muzzle device-suppressor combo screwed into the exposed barrel. The magazine locked into place. Then the hydrogen fuel cartridge. Now the final form of the weapon revealed itself: a railgun.

She lifted the weapon to her shoulder. Through the clear glass of her low power variable optic, and the lenses of her clip-on thermal weapon sight, a distant tree swam into crystal clarity. She thumbed the thermal weapon sight on, and the world vanished into shadows, with pools of glaring white heat.

She grasped her grip pod with her free hand and thumbed a button. The grip split into two, extending tiny legs. She closed it back up, then rotated the fire control lever. Safe, half power, full power, back to safe. Nestled in a nook, an LED flashed green.

The railgun was live.

“Shall we?” she asked.

“Let’s go,” Zen said.

She slung the weapon around her neck, stowed the groundsheet, and donned her pack. Zen looked around for any evidence of their presence, then grabbed his gear. Together, they headed south, through a thin copse of trees, towards the tallest of the hills of North Valley Park.

The military crest of the hill looked down on the North Valley Industrial Zone. Warehouses, factories, the occasional office building. Three hundred meters out to her eleven o’clock, the warehouse occupied the corner of a crossroads, looking south down a wide boulevard. Its neighbors, all of them warehouses of similar size, were quiet. From where she stood, she could observe the neighborhood, sight down the roads, reach out and touch anything that approached.

Developed by the Guild of the Maker, reverse-engineered by the federal government, the railgun was the last word in man-portable anti-materiel weapon technology. It propelled a five-millimeter flechette at two kilometers per second, powerful enough to tear through cyborgs, Godmen, even light armored vehicles. Stepped down to half power, it was practically silent.

Its chief flaw was its slow rate of fire. Ten shots a minute at full power, double that at half power. Fine for precision shots. Not for a firefight. Hence Zen’s weapon.

She would take care of long-range and heavily armored threats with the railgun. If they got too close, Zen would greet them with his UCW. A division of labor they had established in the STS and carried into today.

She laid herself down on a bare patch of earth, then pulled out her chameleon camouflage blanket. Made of metamaterials, it would bend all light around itself, leaving only a ghostly outline. Zen and Kayla huddled under the blanket, pressing up against each other. She splayed her legs as far they could go, touching the dirt with her inner ankles, digging the edges of her boots into the ground. She deployed the grip pod and rested the legs on bare dirt. Left arm folded across her chest, she made a fist under the buttstock, securing it in place.

She relaxed into the earth, embraced the earth, sinking her bones and relaxing her muscles to build a solid, immovable structure. Her crosshairs rose and fell with her breath in a steady, predictable motion.

Next to her, Zen danced his fingers before the cameras of his eyeshields, activating its onboard phone app.

“We’re in position,” Zen whispered.

Silence, for a moment.

“Roger,” he said, and hung up.

And turned to Kayla.

“Alex is ready. He’s downloaded the biocomputer plans and disabled the copy protection. They’re encrypted, but he grabbed the password too. If it checks out, he’ll start printing in a few.”

“Copy,” Kayla understood.

She shifted her position slightly.




Find out what happened the last time Alex worked together with the STS in BABYLON BLUES!

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